Sunday, November 22, 2009

A passionate voice for refugees’ cause

November 22, 2009
James F. Smith

When Halima Ali, a Somali working at a Boston refugee agency, learned that her own mother and her eight brothers and sisters had escaped Somalia’s nightmarish civil war, but were languishing in a refugee camp in Kenya, she knew just who to turn to for help.

Kitty Dukakis.
Ali’s friend and colleague at the agency, Dukakis pounced on the case and didn’t let go. For three years, she made incessant phone calls to lawyers, doctors, and bureaucrats until finally, in 2003, the Alis got their coveted visas and were reunited with Halima. The family lives in Cambridge, and the siblings are in school and starting careers.

“Kitty took this extremely personally. She got strongly involved until the day they arrived in this country,’’ Ali said. And it didn’t stop there. “When we found out the family was coming, Kitty got her sister on Cape Cod to donate stuff to furnish the house.’’

As she has waged her very public struggles with alcoholism and depression, the 72-year-old former first lady of Massachusetts has still found it in her to quietly help the most helpless.

The Alis are just one of countless refugee families Dukakis has helped in 30 years of hands-on work since 1979, when she invoked her own Jewish heritage on behalf of survivors of the Holocaust. Since then she has helped victims from Cambodia and Kosovo, Congo and Kenya.

Today, at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, Dukakis will push her refugee cause once again, waving the flag for Mapendo International, the Cambridge rescue organization she has worked with for the past five years.

It was Ali who introduced Dukakis to Sasha Chanoff, the founder of Mapendo. While Dukakis was working for the Ali family’s visas from Boston, Chanoff - then working for a global refugee organization in Kenya - was assisting the family on the ground in Nairobi. After Chanoff moved back to his native Boston in 2003, Ali invited him and Dukakis to lunch.

Dukakis said she knew immediately that she wanted to get involved with Chanoff’s ambitious plan to build an agile organization that could rescue even those refugees who had fallen through the cracks of the UN refugee agency and other global groups. Dukakis was captivated by the story of Rose Mapendo, for whom the organization was named. Chanoff had helped rescue Rose and her children from a refugee camp in the Congo; she now lives in Phoenix and is cofounder of Mapendo.

Two years ago, Dukakis traveled with Chanoff to Nairobi to inaugurate Mapendo’s new refugee clinic.

“We took her to one of the biggest slums, Mathare Valley,’’ Chanoff said. “She was literally jumping over raw sewage and going into refugees’ homes and talking to people without lights or water, sitting with them as naturally as if she were their next-door neighbor.’’

“A little later that day, we went to see the US ambassador,’’ Chanoff said. “And as she sat with him and talked about Kenya, she was very regal. It kind of reminded me of a queen. This is someone who can connect with people at any level.’’

Dukakis has lost none of the feisty spirit that Bay Staters grew to expect from her during her husband Michael’s 12 years as governor. She is outraged, for example, that the United States doesn’t actually use all of its authorized quota of about 80,000 refugees per year.

“The United States has been a leader on refugees, but in the past five years we have left 100,000 refugee slots unfilled. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s absolutely insane,’’ she declared in an interview in the sun-filled kitchen of her Brookline home.

She keeps in touch with a surprising number of those she has helped.

In 1985, a Cambodian refugee living in Lynnfield, Sarom Taing, heard that one of her eight brothers and sisters had survived the genocide that swept Cambodia, and that the boy was stuck in a camp on the Thai border.

Taing said later that she knew that Kitty Dukakis had helped other refugees and stopped a car that bore a Dukakis bumper sticker: How could she reach Mrs. Dukakis? Told to write to the State House, she sent a letter that made its way into her husband’s hands. He phoned her: “Kitty, you’ve got to see this.’’

She was just about to make her second trip to the Cambodian border to help bring orphaned refugees to America and went to the camp to look for Taing’s 16-year-old brother, named Pich Hout. But at the gate, guards told her she lacked the right permit. She got on her knees to plead, saying she was just looking for one boy. The guards relented. Holding his picture aloft in the crowded camp, she found him.

Pich Hout, who is now 40, came to America a few weeks later. He received degrees at Brandeis and Northeastern, and is now a physician’s assistant at Lowell General Hospital, the only Khmer speaker in the emergency room to assist Cambodians who come in for treatment.

He and Kitty Dukakis still speak often.

“I think she did this out of her heart,’’ he said of the rescue. “She understands what refugees and the Cambodian people went through.’’

And then there is the story of Arn Chorn-Pond, the adopted son of the late Peter Pond, a Congregational minister who got Kitty Dukakis involved with Cambodians in the first place.

The Ponds had adopted three Cambodian boys, and brought them to the Dukakis home one day. While they were visiting, Dukakis’ father, the late Harry Ellis Dickson, stopped by after a rehearsal. Dickson was a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and associate conductor of the Boston Pops.

“He took out his violin and played for these kids,’’ she recalled. “And they had never heard a real violin being played. Eventually dad introduced these kids to classical music through the symphony.’’

Arn Chorn-Pond went on the get a degree from Providence College, and to found the Cambodian Living Arts program that he runs in Phnom Penh, the capital, reviving traditional Cambodian music and teaching it to hundreds of young musicians.

Chorn, reached by telephone in Cambodia, recalled that first visit to the Dukakis home vividly, when he was 14 or 15: “I had never felt hugged in my life. I had been a child soldier. I knew nothing about America. I was confused, and saddened. To have this beautiful lady hug me - she doesn’t even know it, but it was a turning point for me.’’

James F. Smith writes about Boston’s global ties. His blog is at His e-mail is

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